UPPER MARLBORO – County leaders talk about bringing the world to Prince George’s County, and the school system is getting in on the act as well. Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is celebrating the United Nations (UN) International Decade for People of African Descent beginning this year by highlighting cultural learning and exchange programs […]
UPPER MARLBORO – County leaders talk about bringing the world to Prince George’s County, and the school system is getting in on the act as well.
Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is celebrating the United Nations (UN) International Decade for People of African Descent beginning this year by highlighting cultural learning and exchange programs that let students experience first-hand their commonalities with other students around the world. The Year One celebration was held on June 17 at the Sasscer Administration Building and included the unveiling of an outdoor mural by Brazilian artist Alexandre Keto, along with the presentation of awards to those leading the effort in the county. Keto travelled to Suitland High School the next day to paint another large mural on their building to continue the celebration.
“What the Decade presents, to me, is the opportunity to work with the young people who are going through what I went through all those years ago of trying to figure out where do I fit? How do I connect? How do I share what I know?” Maria Saldana, director of the Center for Visual and Performing Arts at Suitland High School, said.
Saldana came to the United States in 1983 and experienced first-hand what many students immigrating from other countries experience. She said art provides a way for connections with others to form.
Zakiya Carr Johnson, director of race, ethnicity and social inclusion unit of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the U.S. state department, used her keynote address to also highlight the importance of including South American members of the diaspora in the conversation, as PGCPS is doing, because they are often overlooked.
“It often gets kind of wiped away. We think Africa, then we think the Carribbean. These are the obvious places. And because people come here and they speak English, perhaps we lump them together and we say, ‘yep, we’re all people of African descent. We kind of have some things in common.’ There are still barriers left for us to bridge.”
Keto’s mural on the Sasscer building features a tree (representing life), birds (representing hope) and three women of African descent. He said he wanted to convey a message of repaired history.
“The African workers built my country, but when we go to the college, to the TV, where are they? We cannot see them. So I think it’s totally unfair what my country does with not valuing our history,” he said.
Keto first connected with PGCPS when students in the system travelled to Brazil on a cultural exchange program organized by Culture Keepers, a program run by Chanel Compton, now the executive director of the Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center. Students learned about local black history and shared knowledge with their Brazilian counterparts, who shared their own local history. The students then painted murals in each others’ countries to demonstrate both the differences and similarities within the diaspora.
Compton said the program was designed to show “how we can use this history, this global movement, as a connector. It’s a connector of audiences, of young people, of neighbors, of communities that wouldn’t be connected otherwise. It’s such a great initiative.”
County Executive Rushern Baker III said immigrants represent 20 percent of the county and said during his own education, opportunities to learn alongside those from different countries within the diaspora were very informative.
“This is an important part of what we want for Prince George’s County students,” Baker said. “The greatest part of our strength is in our diversity. It’s the things that, all throughout the diaspora, (people) bring to the county that makes it great.”
Carr Johnson said those kinds of interpersonal, face-to-face meetings are vital for truly bridging cultural divides.
“How do we have a people to people conversation? How do they get to know Americans? Exchange has helped us do that, having these people to people exchanges through art, but also through other things: innovation, technology, business,” she said.
In addition to the murals and exchanges, Compton and her team will run a summer series on arts in the diaspora and incorporating the theme into her other programs.
Suitland High School Principal Nathan Newman said he is proud his school supports these cultural exchanges and the arts. He saw firsthand how the arts can bridge gaps when he was a drama teacher.
“I saw the African kids and the African-American kids begin to share their story and share their experiences. Through the arts, they connected and created a bond. The power of the arts, the power of knowing the history, has the ability to change lives,” he said.
PGCPS Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell was praised for being a strong supporter of the arts throughout the school system. He said he sees them as a way to represent both the past and the future.
“The arts are a way, from my perspective, to tell stories, to represent history. But it gives us a bridge, in many ways, to go from what’s history to what we aspire to be and who we aspire to be,” he said.
The UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent lists as its three themes recognition, justice and development. Departments throughout the UN will host activities in support of the decade through 2024. Carr Johnson said Prince George’s County is showing strong leadership, domestically, with the schools’ commemoration.
And Compton said the involvement is just beginning.
“This is Year One. Year Two, we’re going to knock it out the ball park,” she said.